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Transformation of a Town -- Tallahassee Rapidly Becoming Elite Running's Ground Zero

Date: 
05/16/2008 - 14:01

By Pete Rea/Zap Fitness/Running Journal/April 2008

In the spring of 1988 I took my first trip to Tallahassee, FL, for the TAC (now USATF) National Junior Track and Field Championships. Between events, my coach and I drove to the countryside for runs on the parks and dirt roads that circle the capital city. At the time I remember being surprised at the dearth of quality long distance runners living and training in this city with so many great venues. Moreover, the university's (FL State) track program was primarily a sprints and jumps program. Their in-state rival (University of FL) was the reigning "distance school" in the Sunshine State. Two decades later Tallahassee has transformed itself into one of (if not THE) it town for distance running not only in Florida, but also perhaps in the country. How did it happen?

When Florida State Head Track and Field Coach Bob Braman arrived in Tallahassee in 2000, he brought with him a culture of long distance running from his former job at the University of South Florida. While there, Braman took the Tampa based mid- major Division I school to national prominence with teams that consistently qualified for the NCAA Championships and produced individuals such as two-time NCAA 5,000m Champion ('92 and '93) Jon Dennis. "Bob was and is the most passionate distance running coach I have ever seen," said Dennis. "He would strap track spikes on during a cross-country race and make his way to 10 or 12 spots on the course to scream at us. His energy was infectious, and he made us all want to be our best."

Upon his arrival in Tallahassee, Braman immediately made distance running a priority at Florida State, and it did not take long before All-American plaques were being hung in large numbers in his office. Like his South Florida Bulls teams of the '80s and '90s, Seminole distance teams began seeing national rankings. In 2006 and 2007 Florida State won the men's NCAA Track and Field Championship, and Braman was named National Coach of the Year. In the fall of 2007, the Florida State women's cross-country team finished third at the NCAA Championship under new women's director Karen Harvey. The worm had definitely turned in the direction of Tallahassee, FL. So much so that America's Foot Locker National high school champion in 2007 -- Michael Fout of Indiana -- just signed a letter of intent to run for coach Braman beginning in the fall of 2008.

In addition to the success of Florida State, post-collegiate programs such as ours at ZAP Fitness as well as numerous others began arriving in Tallahassee for training stints in 2002, and word quickly spread about the town's endless system of grass roads, dirt roads, tracks, and trails. Who has been training in this distance running utopia of late? In addition to two-time Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein and his Boulder Performance Group teammates who trained here in 2007, the current stock of athletes living and training in Tallahassee is an array of the cream of the crop of both American and global distance elites including ...

New Zealanders National 1,500m record holder Nick Willis and countrywoman 14:47 5,000m runner Kim Smith, Olympic finalist and Canadian National Record Holder Kevin Sullivan, American 5,000m Olympian Amy Rudolph and husband Irish National Record Holder Marc Carroll as well as Providence RI based professionals Roisin McGettigan, Molly Huddle and Amy Mortimer. Add to that 2:01 800m runner Morgan Uceny and 2007 NCAA Steeplechase Champion Anna Willard of Michigan, and you have a training community rivaled by none other in America. Where are the venues that these swift of foot are training in the capital city?

The Micosukee Greenway -- 17 miles of pristine grass roads on the East side of town (FL State runs its home cross-country meets here), Alford Greenway and connecting Tom Brown Park -- 900 acres of dirt roads and grass trails extending almost 30 kilometers, and Silver Lake Road Network -- 42 miles of dirt roads only 15 minutes drive from downtown Tallahassee. Others include Forest Meadows Tennis Center and the adjoining Lake Overstreet Trails -- 20 kilometers of gravel and dirt roads winding through a pine forest a mere 10 kilometers north of downtown, as well as the St. Mark's Bike Path (30 kilometer long bike path running south toward the coast) and adjoining Munson Sand Hills Trails. These are but a few of the more than 20 top notch non-paved and even footed running venues that Tallahassee boasts and why we travel here each season.

This was the sixth year our ZAP Fitness Elite came to Tallahassee. As we departed the Days Inn University Center after seven weeks here, we spotted Brett Ely and Kasie Enman, two-time Olympic Marathon Trials Qualifiers from Boston, pulling into the parking lot for the beginning of their own extended stay. They are but two more top quality athletes who have discovered what we at ZAP fitness found in 2002. Tallahassee is a city with the best training venues of any American city I have seen, and an ever- growing culture of appreciation for long distance running.

ZAP Fitness is a Reebok and NY Road Runners sponsored non- profit facility that supports post collegiate distance runners in Blowing Rock, NC. ZAP puts on adult running camps during the summer and is available for retreats all year. The facility has a state of the art weight room, a bio-lab for physiological testing and a 24-bed lodge. Coaches at the facility include two- time Olympic Trials Qualifiers Zika Palmer and Randy Ashley as well as head coach Pete Rea. For more information go to www.zapfitness.com.

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